Review: Pat Metheny, Ronnie Scott’s

Probably the most flawless small band performance I have ever seen

£100 – £175 is a lot of money to pay for two hours of music, but that’s what it cost to see Pat Metheny at Ronnie Scott’s this week. The guitar great is in town with his new quartet, a dream team comprising British pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda Oh (a major name on the New York scene who I first saw performing with Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’ Sound Prints quintet) and drummer Antonio Sánchez, a long-time Metheny collaborator and the composer of the acclaimed score to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman.

Shoehorned in at the bar, with the rest of the club packed to the rafters, I caught the early show on Wednesday night – the first of eight sets, but by no means a warm-up. In fact, it was probably the most flawless small band performance I have ever seen: as slick as Metheny’s Brylcreem guitar sound, and ingeniously choreographed. Read the rest of

— Thomas Rees

— Photo by Mattia Luigi Nappi/Wikicommons

Review: Empirical’s Pop-Up Jazz Lounge, Old Street Underground

Free jazz and the hipster singularity

“I can’t believe it. Free jazz in Old Street tube, how cool is that?”

It’s a relief to hear this kind of thing from passersby, because Empirical’s attempt to bring jazz to the people, to reach new audiences and develop their music through an experimental, week-long residency in a London tube station, could so easily have gone wrong.

When I spoke to bassist Tom Farmer about the project, the MOBO-winners, due to release their fifth album, Connection, in March, seemed well aware of the risks. Commuters might hate it, or worse, keep their heads down and ignore it altogether. (“Don’t make eye contact!”) It seemed touch and go whether the band (jazz night owls to a man) would turn up to one of the performances, scheduled for 8am on a Tuesday, and there was also the distinct possibility that a jazz pop-up might tip Old Street over the edge. Could this postmodern cave of wonders – already crammed full of pop-ups selling pop art, kale juice, vegan energy bars, and spiralised fresh air – cope with jazz, or would Empirical bring about some kind of hipster singularity in which Silicon Roundabout disappears into its own Instagram account and a giant beard ultimately becomes the next Mayor of London?

Happily, it turns out that it can. In fact, on the evidence of Thursday night, the lounge is a roaring success: relaxed and welcoming, not edgy or pretentious, and consistently packed. It looks the part, a narrow space lit by filament lightbulbs and angle-poise lamps, with Empirical album art splashed across the walls. And the audience is as varied as the band had hoped: a few hardcore music fans (you can tell from the earnest nodding), men in suits, tech company types, shoppers and even a few kids. Not the usual jazz club crowd. Read the rest on

— Thomas Rees

— Photo by Dan Redding/Empirical

Review: Wayne Shorter and Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Barbican

A landmark meeting that lives up to the hype

Wayne Shorter and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – that sounds like a dream pairing. Shorter, now 82, is one of the true greats, a saxophonist and composer with an enchanting and unpredictable approach that makes him instantly recognisable. He had a defining influence on Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet and on Weather Report and, for many, his current quartet represents the pinnacle of modern small group performance. Under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra have come to represent the pinnacle of repertoire big band playing, so this collaborative rummage through Shorter’s back catalogue with arrangements by JLCO members ought to be sublime.

But we’ve been here before, and as we take our seats in Barbican Hall I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling a little nervous. Read On…

Review: Esperanza Spalding, Shepherd’s Bush Empire

New project Emily’s D+Evolution brings a touch of the surreal

EsperanzaSpalding MG 3035

She comes on stage in a crouch, to a backdrop of squalling rock guitar and bradycardic bass drum. It’s pitch black but I can see something slung across her shoulders, fanning out behind her like a tail of peacock feathers. She steps up to the microphone and I realise it’s her bass.

On my ticket it says Esperanza Spalding, the prodigious bass-playing vocalist who became the first jazz musician to win Best New Artist at the Grammys, in 2011. But this is someone else. This is Emily, Spalding’s alter ego and the front-woman for Emily’s D+Evolution, a new project inspired by rock band Cream; a documentary about Cream drummer Ginger Baker; and a “sleepless night of full moon inspiration.” Or so the story goes.

I like Emily. She’s an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle wrapped inside psychedelic two-tone leggings. She wears braids and baby blue wayfarer glasses and chunky white high-heeled boots that gleam as bright as a celebrity’s smile. Her vocals are flawless, husky, bittersweet and lustrous as caramel, and with the excellent Matt Stevens on guitar, Justin Tyson on drums and charismatic duo Emily Elbert and Corey King on backing vocals, she knows how to pick a band. Read the rest at


— Thomas Rees

— Photo by Roger Thomas

Review: Bill Frisell’s Music For Strings, Ronnie Scott’s

‘The great American guitarist seemed a little out of sorts’

Bill Frisell calls violinist Jenny Scheinman, viola player Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts his ‘dream string section’ and on albums like 2011’s Sign of Life and 2013’s Big Sur you can hear why. There’s an elegant simplicity and a wonderful sense of flow to their music. The development feels so seamless and organic it’s as if the tunes are playing themselves and you’re left with the impression of a meeting of minds — of four musicians who know each other’s playing intimately.

On this, the first of two nights at Ronnie Scotts, they didn’t quite reach those dizzy heights. The great American guitarist seemed a little out of sorts – quieter than usual and reluctant to solo – but there was still plenty to enjoy about the set.

Frisell being Frisell, Americana was a prominent theme, established early with ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘Pastures of Plenty’, tunes from a recent Woody Guthrie project. Opening with a small town country feel, the quartet sauntered into a lazy blues that peaked with a wonderful, bleary-eyed violin solo for Scheinman, full of yawning glissandi.

There was more from the American West in the second half, with the strings striding through ‘Going to California’ and the fat, surf rock groove of ‘The Big One’ (both tracks from Big Sur) before shootin’ the breeze in cowboy country with a rendition of ‘Verona’.

A brief foray into Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ was lifted by exploratory contributions from Kang, his slides between notes recalling the sound of the Chinese erhu fiddle, and a nostalgic amble through the theme from Bond film You Only Live Twice (set in Japan) brought further eastern inflections.

As for those fabled moments of interplay, they were there in the twisted bebop head of ‘Skippy’ and in the web of fragile guitar lines, murmuring pizzicato viola and rasping cello that prefaced ‘Blue in Green’ – a tantalising glimpse of what this electrified string quartet can do when they’re at their best.

— Thomas Rees

— Image: Wikicommons

Review: Tigran Hamasyan and the Yerevan State Choir, Union Chapel

“Armenian sacred music from the 5th century to the 20th century” – that reads like the title of an academic monograph – the kind of thing you’d toil over in the drafty corner of a university library, watching the night draw in and your chances of making that early morning essay deadline evaporate. It may well be, but it’s also the unassuming tagline of Luys i Luso (ECM), the latest album by young Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, which is anything but dry and dusty.

Hamasyan’s longstanding interest in the sacred music of his homeland has led him to collaborate with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir and to arrange a series of Armenian hymns, cantos and sharakans (chants) by composers such as Komitas, Mesrop Mashtots and Grigor Narekatsi, for piano and voices. It makes for a profoundly atmospheric recording, but performed by Hamasyan and a pared-down touring choir of eight voices beneath the cavernous domed ceiling of Union Chapel in Islington the music sounded even better and more alive. Read the rest on

— Thomas Rees

— Photo by Roger Thomas

Sons Of Kemet, Neil Cowley Trio And Dylan Howe Play Up A Storm At Canary Wharf Jazz Festival

Musicians have always benefitted from the patronage of the wealthy, but though it’s now in its ninth year, there’s still something odd about a jazz festival in Canary Wharf. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting worlds than those of jazz and high finance and you’d think this fiercely ordered business hub would take umbrage against a bunch of scruffy, free-spirited musos traipsing through.

Yet it all works rather well and the arts and events wing of the Canary Wharf Group proves itself a generous and accommodating host – the philanthropic heart of gold behind all that glass and steel. For starters the whole weekend is free; they’ve splashed out on a series of giant video screens to relay the on-stage action around Canada Square Park; and when I arrive on Friday night, in the driving rain, there’s a gaggle of dripping wet stewards handing out ponchos. It’s down to Bristol-based jazz-rock band The Rawness to start the show and, to their credit, they play their hearts across some funked-up originals, despite performing to a crowd of around 30 people cowering beneath umbrellas.

Headlining the opening night are Sons of Kemet (pictured top) who banish the rain altogether with tracks from forthcoming album Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do. It’s an inspiring set, full of heavy dub grooves, swaggering, roar-throated sax lines and jolting drum beats, with Arabic and Ethiopian notes to counterpoint the strong Caribbean flavour. Theon Cross gets the crowd going with a thunderous tuba breakdown, complete with yelping altissimo whoops, and Shabaka Hutchings (below) riffs in return, spinning out some arrestingly fragile melodies – notes of calm amidst the wonderfully chaotic, bull-in-a-china-shop drum solos of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. The four musicians give it their all and by the end, spurred on by the roar of the small but dedicated crowd, they’re wetter than we are – drenched in sweat.


The rest of the weekend is dry, the stewards are handing out plastic picnic rugs and the park is packed. It’s a varied crowd – families, friends of all ages, a few barefoot hippies and a sprinkling of the formidably well-heeled – and we get a varied programme to match. Some of it ispretty involved and one of Sunday’s highlights is an appearance from trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and her Family Hafla Band, followed by an atmospheric set of Bowie instrumentals from drummer Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans. As archive footage of goose-stepping soldiers, murky street scenes and flickering crowds plays out on the big screens, Howe transports us to 1970s Berlin. The music is engrossing and much of it is sunk in shadowy intrigue, but there are bright lights and bold colours too, with glinting solos from pianist Ross Stanley and unison melodies that see James Allsopp’s saxophone blending with Steve Lodder’s fizzing, acid-trip synth to great effect.

Also on the bill are a few party bands and, as private jets skirt the surrounding skyscrapers bound for London City Airport, Afrobeat warriors The Fontanelles take the stage. Formerly the band for FELA! at the National Theatre, a musical about the life of Nigerian icon Fela Kuti, they’re polished and punchy and they get the crowd dancing.

There’s more dancing when Venezuelan timbales player Edwin Sanz and his San Agustin Salsa Orchestra steam on, with charismatic, high kicking frontmen and keys player Alex Wilson pounding out the montunos. They’re a lot of fun but it’s a surreal experience and thoroughly disorienting, particularly when they launch into salsa versions of pop classics ‘Ain’t Nobody’ and ‘Higher Love’ and when Brit rapper Jayel comes on for the finale, amidst furious percussion breaks, beatboxing and screaming lead trumpet.

Just as spectacular are the Neil Cowley Trio. Backlit by the eerie blue glow of the Barclays and KPMG buildings, they bring the festival to a close with a characteristically RSI-inducing set of minimalist grooves and thrashing, rock climaxes that go down a storm. “It’s great to be here at Canary Wharf,” the pianist says with a laugh, “… a place I so rarely come.” I’d be willing to bet that’s the last time you’ll see a jazz musician in Canada Square Park, at least until they allow us all back for the festival’s 10th anniversary next year.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Nunzio Prenna

This article was originally published on

Local Acts Light Up The 20th Manchester Jazz Festival

Usually when a festival the size of Manchester reaches a major milestone they call in the cavalry – jazz titans like the Marsalis Brothers, Charles Lloyd or Chick Corea come to take care of the fireworks and help put up the bunting and what you get is a programme full of international heavy hitters. But that’s not really the point of MJF and never has been.

This festival is less about bringing the world to Manchester and more about showcasing the best that the North West has to offer – which is saying a great deal. This is a city with a proud musical tradition after all – the home of Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Phil. It’s the parade ground of several of the UK’s most flawlessly twee brass bands and the indie hub that gave us Oasis, Elbow and The Smiths (which just about makes up for the Bee Gees).

Manchester’s jazz scene is one of enviable strength and depth and MJF’s programme has always been heavy on local bands with a view to flaunting and nurturing the city’s musical output. Though there were a smattering of international jazz stars on this year’s bill their sets certainly weren’t the highlights – at least during my visit, on the final weekend of the festival’s 10-day run.

I’m a huge fan of Robert Glasper. His duo performance with fellow Houstonian Jason Moran was one of the standout gigs at last year’s London Jazz Festival and I was privileged enough to watch his Experiment band play a blinder at the Sage Gateshead in 2013. His trademark blend of jazz, hip hop and R&B is one of the defining sounds of the past few years, one that has spawned legions of imitators and turned new audiences on to the tradition. Yet I found his MJF set, in front of a sell-out crowd at the RNCM, hard going.

The pianist took to the stage with his recently reformed trio of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid and the three men displayed impressive interactive powers across a series of tracks from latest album Covered, cut with Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” and extended quotes from “Afro Blue” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, by neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo. But on the whole the gig felt aimless and self-indulgent. Bursts of solo piano from Glasper lacked direction and the grooves were all on one level – laid back and lethargic. They would have made perfectly pleasant R&B beats, with a vocalist to add interest, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit if they’d been on the playlist at a house party, but as material for a sit down concert they left a lot to be desired.

Sunday’s set of ethereal soundscapes and indie pop-inspired originals from hotly-tipped French trumpeter Airelle Besson, winner of the Django Reinhardt Prize and this year’s French Jazz Musician of the Year, was also a little disappointing. Besson’s quartet played well enough, with vocalist Isabel Sorling contributing arcing lines that glowed like moon beams thanks to some subtle electronic enhancement. But the writing felt cluttered and the group’s strategy of allowing tracks to evolve organically (though perfectly sound if properly handled) made for a lot of wandering moments.

Gorka Benítez, a tenor player and flautist from the Basque Country representing Spain on behalf of the Manchester branch of the Instituto Cervantes, gave us an inspiring set full of Iberian flair and forays into free jazz that saved the away team’s blushes. But it was the local bands, and those with a local connection, who ensured that this anniversary went off with a bang.

I have my reservations about GoGo Penguin’s brand of jazz-inflected, acoustic dance music, which can be formulaic at times, but it’s hard not to be swept along by the energy and there was no doubting that the trio played up a storm, headlining the Thwaites Festival Pavilion on Friday night with tracks from v2.0 and their forthcoming debut for Blue Note. There’s a primal quality to their melodies. Like a handprint on the wall of a cave, they awaken something within you and they get your pulse racing. The crowd was clearly delighted to see them back on home turf and greeted them with a thunderous roar.


Just as engrossing was the premiere of Evolution: Seeds and Streams, by Mancunian pianist John Ellis(above),who headlined the first Manchester Jazz Festival back in 1996. Part of the MJF Originals series of new commissions, it was a piece of gently-unfolding, understated beauty – drifting in a world of its own, somewhere between chamber music, jazz and ambient art rock. There were yawning, richly-voiced horn lines; tinkling kora grooves; pointillist, pizzicato strings; snatches of sampled bird song and whispered vocal sounds. Ellis added bulging sci fi synth lines and shivering piano commentaries played on an old upright that sounded as though it had been knocked about a little over the years. The insinuations of honky tonk and the squeak of the pedals only added to the surreal quality of the atmosphere.

The Neo-Gothic splendour of Manchester’s town hall was an inspired choice of setting and an animated backdrop by Antony Barkworth-Knight, full of arresting visuals, was the perfect complement to the music. There were shots of water that ran as thick as oil, muted colours bleeding into one another, stylised flocks of birds and a roving eye. Best of all were a series of hands over which the camera lingered, searching the contours of the palm and the topography of the knuckles, finding beauty in the mundane.

St Anne’s church, the setting for a graceful and wonderfully fluid duo performance from Salford-born guitarist Mike Walker and Chetham’s alumnus Gwilym Simcock (below), was similarly well chosen – particularly as the pair opened with an extract from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. As was the Central Library’s circular reading room, its domed ceiling reverberating with the lilting melodies of trumpeter Neil Yates’ whisper soft Surroundings suite, originally commissioned in 2010 and pared down for a quartet completed by saxophonists Iain Ballamy and Tori Freestone with pianist Les Chisnall.

Walker Sym

As well as demonstrating just how many of the British jazz establishment have ties to the North West, MJF does an excellent job of promoting lesser known acts from the region and there were a host of promising newcomers rubbing shoulders with the local boys and girls done good. The easy-going grooves and swaggering basslines of Afrika Jazz, a trio led by Congolese pianist and Birmingham Conservatoire student Tshepe Tshepela, ensured a laid back start to Friday’s programme and a performance from the Quarry Hillbillies proved an unexpected highlight. See a name like that and you fear the worst but don’t let it put you off. So called because they all teach at Leeds College of Music in Quarry Hill, the quintet take their playing seriously. Their set of contemporary, European jazz originals in the tradition of Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor was flawlessly polished, with plenty of inspiring improvised moments played out across merry-go-round chord sequences – the kind that swing you back to the top and feel like a dream to solo over. Once you’re on you never want to get off.

Drummer Jim Molyneux’s horn-heavy, Snarky Puppy-esque Glowrogues were another exciting discovery and a set of grungy, EWI-led jazz prog from young Leeds band, Stretch Trio (pictured top of page) was equally strong. Both groups would benefit from tightening up a few of their compositions, distilling them down to their essentials, but both have bags of promise and Glowrogues in particular have some killer hooks – choruses that make you want to throw your head back and shout “Choon!” They were on stage again for the festival’s after party at Northern Quartet club Band on the Wall, where they shared the bill with Kalakuta, a group of RNCM students and alumni whose set of high energy Afro Beat was similarly outstanding.

Walking back along Tib Street and through the city centre that night, past boarded-up boozers and livelier ones done out in red brick and glazed tile, I was in no doubt that I’d seen Manchester at its best and it hardly seemed to matter that the weekend’s overseas guests hadn’t lived up to their billings. Homegrown talent provided all of the fireworks this superb twentieth anniversary celebration needed.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Weiting Huang and Peter Woodman

This article was originally published on

Review: Irakere with Chucho Valdes, Ronnie Scott’s

The legendary Cuban ensemble’s 40th anniversary celebration doesn’t quite take off

When Irakere first played Ronnie Scott’s, back in 1985, they sold out the venue for five weeks on the trot. You can watch a video on Youtube of the band in full flow and wish you’d been there. 30 years later (40 years since the pioneering Latin jazz outfit began) and they’re back to celebrate the anniversary, playing two shows a night across six nights, with pianist and founder Chucho Valdes at the helm.  

I’d heard the stories and I was in the mood for a party – for the kind of gig that has you wishing you’d splashed out on one of the tables at the front where you’re right in the middle of the action, with room to dance – and at times it was heading that way.

“Estela Va A Estallar”, a hard grooving take on “Stella By Starlight”, intensified by driving electric bass, boisterous montuno, furious conga and kit playing and shout choruses from the horns, was uplifting. As was the funk number that followed, given an Afro Cuban twist by charismatic percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, who augmented his batá drumming with Yoruba vocal shouts, frantic on-stage dancing and a wander through the crowd to orchestra a few claps. “Bacalao Con Pan”, an Irakere classic, was better still and here the horns stole the show, contributing ballsy solos and a few dance moves of their own.

There was the moment Valdes stood up and shouted ‘¡Coño!’ at the top of his lungs before directing a splashy, all-over-the-place pause, and there were piano fireworks – showers of sparks, ostinati that span like Catherine wheels and chords that detonated like rockets.

But for the most part the set felt a little subdued and decidedly underpowered. In the early stages there were too many drawn-out solos under which the rhythm section failed to build. Melodies and grooves felt truncated – they didn’t cook for long enough and the horns often looked disengaged – and when the band left the stage after a little over an hour, declining to play an encore, it felt as if they were just getting warmed up.

It was a young band. As well as reinventing Cuban dance music and making an indelible impression on the world of Latin jazz, Irakere was the training ground for some of the most influential Cuban musicians of the past few decades. Clearly Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera hadn’t fancied a reunion. Still, you would have thought that young blood would have raised the energy levels not dampened them. Perhaps the week-long run had taken its toll. Maybe they were saving themselves for a big finish in the late show. Whatever the reason, if I’d paid full whack for one of those tables at the front I would have been a little disappointed.

— Thomas Rees

— Photo Wikicommons

An edited version of this piece was originally published on


Review: Jason Moran, Justin Kauflin And D’Angelo Shine At Montreux Jazz Festival

Thomas Rees is swept away by glamour, history and stand out performances from Jason Moran, Avishai Cohen, Justin Kauflin, Lorenz Kellhuber, and D’Angelo’s band of jazz heavyweights at this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival

montreux jazz lab - 5 juillet - 20130705 lab black rebel motorcycle club md 44

There’s something otherworldly about Montreux. You feel it as soon as you arrive, skirting the shore of Lake Geneva on the train, passing fields of sunflowers and terraces of emerald green vines. There’s a celestial quality to the setting. The snow capped sweep of the alps frames the horizon and the water is as hazy and blue as a gas flame, at times scarcely distinguishable from the sky.

It’s my second year but I’m still giddy with the glamour of it all, the grand old hotels with their wrought iron balconies and canary yellow awnings, the palm trees, and the belle epoch paddle steamers on the lake that announce their arrival with a nostalgic whistle.

The tagline ‘Montreux Riviera’ is bang on. This feels more like the south of France than Switzerland and there’s enough history and romance associated with Montreux to give the Riviera proper a run for its money – not to mention plenty of yachts. Lord Byron used to spend his summers nearby and you’re just an hour’s lazy lakeside stroll from Château de Chillon, a storybook castle that inspired one of his most celebrated works.

That’s before you even get to the festival, which has a mythology and lore of its own. Everyone you can think of has played here and everyone I talk to, from pianist Jason Moran and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen to Quincy Jones, a long-time friend of Montreux and the man responsible for landing some of its biggest acts, is full of it – raving about the atmosphere or, in Quincy’s case, reminiscing about the time he tried to persuade Aretha Franklin to come over despite her fear of flying. He and festival founder Claude Nobs, who passed away in 2013, came up with an elaborate scheme involving trains, limousines and a cruise ship. Aretha paused a moment before delivering the immortal line “ain’t you guys never heard of the Titanic!”

Franklin did play at Montreux, in 1971, the same year some idiot let off a flare in the middle of a Frank Zappa concert and burnt the Montreux Casino to the ground. Rock band Deep Purple, who were in town to record, saw the blaze from their hotel room and ‘Smoke on the Water’ was born. The ‘Funky Claude’ of the second verse is Nobs himself.

There are hundreds of stories like these and almost as many about Montreux’s expense. It’s true that you could spend a heart-stopping amount of money here. The price of hotel rooms skyrockets during the festival and, even by Swiss standards, the big gigs don’t come cheap. You can run up a sobering drinks bill without even trying, burn through your savings at the street food stalls that line the waterfront or remortgage your house for the privilege of entering the seafood and champagne bar in the lobby, where a nearby stand will do you any kind of sandwhich you want, as long as it’s made with Iberico ham, gravlax, caviar or foie gras.

In what felt like a pathetically tame, middle class re-run of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I took to smuggling bread and hunks of Gruyère from the breakfast buffet at my hotel to save on lunch. After spending six hours in my bag in the blazing sun it was warm to the point of hallucinogenic.

But the expense is only half the story. At times Montreux feels like a festival with a split personality. There are as many studenty types here as there are Swiss bankers with Ferraris double parked outside the Montreux Palace hotel and you could just as easily do this festival on the cheap if you stayed at one of the campsites on the outskirts of town and stocked up on beers at the Co-op. By day the atmosphere is genteel but come midnight, when the waterfront is a blur of neon, the whole place lets its hair down.

It’s also sponsored up to its eyeballs and, while some of those sponsors (Nestle, British American Tobacco Switzerland, Diageo and SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) are liable to leave a bitter taste in your mouth (or an oily smudge on your conscience), it does mean that there are an astonishing number of free events.

In fact it’s a little overwhelming. I was there for three days, usually crying off around 3am and I felt like I only scratched the surface. I caught a showing of deeply emotional Clark Terry documentary Keep on Keepin’ On hosted by Quincy Jones (Terry’s first ever student), who arrived in a pair of elegant silk pyjamas; workshops and talks led by Avishai Cohen and Jason Moran; an uplifting set from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir on the Music in the Park stage and jam sessions of frightening quality – all of them free.

Everything that happens here is recorded for the festival’s UNESCO-listed archives, available via terminals in the lobby so, on top of all that, you can while away the time between gigs watching interviews with Stan Getz and sets by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from the early ‘80s, back when Terence Blanchard and Jean Toussaint were still in short trousers. I never even made it to the edgy, laser-lit Jazz Lab where nubile 20-somethings dance until the sun comes up; to the world music stage, El Mundo; to the jazz boat, the jazz train or to any of the competitions, but I saw more than my fair share of inspiring music.

MJF 20150709 Club AvishaiCohen DanielBalmat 048

Avishai Cohen’s New York Division

Cohen and Moran weren’t just in town to give workshops. The bassist was here with his New York Division, a hard grooving six piece that comprises his working trio of pianist Nitai Hershkovits and drummer Daniel Dor, plus a front line made up guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Diego Urcola and trombonist Steve Davis, all former collaborators from the Big Apple. Their set felt like joyful reunion, as much a jam session as a gig, full of blazing solos and infectious grooves that lit up the bassist’s back catalogue and expanded upon tracks from his latest trio album, From Darkness.

There were mesmeric vamps and swaggering montunos, mellow brass chorales and rockier episodes, over which Rosenwinkle’s guitar slithered like an electric eel. Both Dor and Hershkovitz were on fire – the latter spinning out vicious, switchback lines – but it was Urcola who got the best reception from the crowd. On trumpet he can shred like Freddie Hubbard while his flugel sound is dusky and effortlessly laid back. All the while, Cohen pouted and weaved, dancing with his bass and cooing over the soloists.

He gave us a handful of thrumming bass features, a surging Afro Cuban finisher and a haunting rendition of ‘Nature Boy’ – the perfect match for his soft-textured vocals. His bass playing isn’t as explosive as that of someone like Christian McBride, but he more than makes up for it with the quality of his compositions, not to mention limitless energy, charisma and groove. Here he also proved himself a great facilitator and in the New York Division he’s assembled a truly formidable band.

MJF 20150710 CLUB JasonMoran MarcDucrest 139

Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party

The energy levels were ramped up again the following night for Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party, which achieved the impossible by getting the conservative Montreux Jazz Club crowd up on their feet – albeit only during the encore. I don’t know how they held out so long. The set was a whirlwind, a gloriously feral assault on the senses that captured the essence of Waller’s music while simultaneously reinventing it almost beyond recognition.

On ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ Lisa Harris’ blurry, intoxicating vocals hovered over a stuttering hip hop backbeat – the contrast all the more disorientating thanks to Leron Thomas’ old school, muted trumpet lines. ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ got a sultry, R&B refit, anchored by the kind of riff that hangs around in your auditory cortex for days, and ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’ was rendered melancholic to the point of harrowing, underscored by dull, snare drum hits that accentuated the feeling of anguish and disappointment. Moran set out to explore some of the sadness and the trauma behind Waller’s beaming performer persona and he’s nailed it.

The pacing of the set was immaculate too. ‘Two Sleepy People’, a vocal number for Thomas, slowed things down. There was a freewheeling feature for Moran and drummer Charles Haynes, whose power, groove and ability to obscure the barline rivals that of Chris Dave, and in a momentary departure from Waller repertoire, there was a radical recasting of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’ – like a club remix with exaggerated operatic vocals from Harris and a trippy, electro backing track.

With the band in vibrant fabrics and Moran in a Haitian carnival mask – a hefty Waller head complete with hat and smouldering papier-mâché fag – there’s a strong visual dimension to the performance which heightens the immersion and channels Waller’s theatrical side. The whole thing amounts to a towering feat of imagination.

MJF 20150710 CLUB JustinKauflinTrio MarcDucrest 141

Justin Kauflin Trio

Every gig at Montreux is a double bill – excellent for raising the profile of emerging artists – and before Moran’s performance I was glad to catch a set from Justin Kauflin, a young American pianist (blind since the age of 11) who’s being hailed by Quincy Jones as the next big thing. Kauflin seemed to have arrived at Montreux in R&B mode (you can hear the influence of Robert Glasper in the way articulates his chords) and his playing was less varied than it is on his debut album, Dedication, where hard bop and classical tropes also reveal themselves. But his trio set, with bassist Chris Smith and drummer Billy Williams, was memorable all the same. Original compositions dedicated to former teachers – among them Mulgrew Miller and Clark Terry – were soulful and heartfelt, punctuated by chocolatey bass solos from Smith and virtuosic bursts from Kauflin – long ribbons of notes in which he proved himself a master of melodic development. On the agitated groove of ‘The Up and Up’ Williams was magisterial and a Beatles cover, ‘A Day In The Life’, was full of pleasing interplay and switches of groove, with a scattering of hip hop beats.

MJF 20150709 Club LorenzKellhuber DanielBalmat 019

Lorenz Kellhuber

Though it was Kauflin who got the bigger reception from the crowd, the discovery of the festival for me was 25-year-old German pianist Lorenz Kellhuber, who won Montreux’s Parmigiani Piano Solo Competition in 2014. Kellhuber released a trio album, State of Mind, earlier this year, but he took the stage alone to play four long improvisations of astonishing depth and maturity.

There were bluesy episodes and forays into gospel, echoes of ambient rock, exploratory passages lit by quivering stacks of fourths and underwritten by dense classical harmony, and burst of frightening virtuosity. Swirling motifs went on for improbable lengths of time and never seemed to waver (Kellhuber clearly has iron technique) and the whole thing was underscored by serious good taste. There was nothing extraneous. No resort to virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. Everything was in the service of the music and, with timely switches between line playing and chordal work, the pacing was bang on.

The second half of the set brought covers of Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’, Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith and you could here that, even here, Kellhuber was stretching himself, tinkering with the harmony and finding beautiful, unexpected resolutions. The obvious comparison is with Keith Jarrett, who Kellhuber cites as a major influence. He seems similarly swept away by the music – his head continually hacksawing back and forth. If he goes on to similarly great things I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

MJF 20150708 STRAV DAngeloAndTheVanguard LionelFlusin 03

D’Angelo and the Vanguard

Though jazz has always been at the heart of Montreux, nowadays the programming is considerably more varied. Many of this year’s headliners have little or nothing to do with the tradition (along with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Lionel Richie, Sam Smith, Portishead and the Chemical Brothers all top the bill). Others are on the fringes, and I couldn’t resist watching a set by the reincarnated D’Angelo – a neo soul pioneer whose influence can be heard in the work of Jacob Collier, and without whom it’s hard to imagine Jarrod Lawson.

He’s just released his first album for 15 years and has assembled a phenomenal band to celebrate. Among others, the 11-piece Vanguard features veteran bassist Pino Palladino, maverick drummer Chris Dave, guitarist Isaiah Sharkey (a member of Dave’s Drumhedz) and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, whose contributions to recent Otis Brown III release The Thought of You are some of the album’s most memorable.

It was an angsty sort of gig. D’Angelo kept us waiting for almost an hour, with half the crowd booing as he took the stage. But by the time he sauntered off again they were eating out of his hand. Mainstream it may be, but this is serious music making. D’Angelo’s vocals ranged from silky and angelic to raw and impassioned and he orchestrated hits with a wave of his hand, à la James Brown. Classics like ‘Brown Sugar’ were fitted out with inventive new horn parts and a raft of new grooves. The band took risks and there was acres of space for the soloists to shine, with Harrold contributing flaring lines, Sharkey leaning towards intricate post bop phrases and Dave getting up to his usual, confoundingly brilliant, rhythmic trickery.

At the height of ‘The Charade’, a furious response to police brutality in the US, with Dave nailing his snare drum and the whole band shredding, the atmosphere was electric. My notebook was a sweaty, ink-smeared mess and I couldn’t have been happier. It felt like history in the making, but that’s nothing new for Montreux. Here it’s just another story in a long list – a footnote in the tale of this glitzy musical Narnia with its powder blue lake and fairy tale castle, a place where an appearance from a pyjama-clad Quincy Jones is nothing out of the ordinary. The festival turns 50 next year. If you’ve never experienced it, I suggest you go.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

Photos credits as follows – The Jazz Lab (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Cohen (Credit: 2015 FFJM Daniel Balmat), Moran (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Kauflin (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Kellhuber (Credit: 2015 FFJM Daniel Balmat) and D’Angelo (Credit: 2015 FFJM Lionel Flusin)

This article was originally published on